It’s time to leave Rome. Escaping big cities is always the tricky part. I have the Hitchwiki directions on a piece of paper, but somehow we get lost on step two and find ourselves surrounded by fields and small villages. The first rule of hitchhiking: there’s no such thing as stranded. I stick out my thumb and the third car stops. This wonderful elderly couple type our service station road name into their GPS and drive us straight there. “He’s a gentleman,” the woman says, smiling as we thank the man profusely and step through the turnstile gate, ignoring the “no entry” sign as directed by Hitchwiki.
The bus out of Rome was packed full of people and it’s not ’til I go to pay for a coffee that I realise my wallet is gone. €70, three cash cards, pictures of friends and my Euopean Health Card, gone. Memories of a faint suspiscion about the man next to me come flooding back. Why did I not zip my bag up? Fool! I kick myself for being so stupid and steal myself a massive bar of hazelnut chocolate to cheer myself up. I hope whoever it was really, really, really needed that money.
Now we’re at the service station things are easier, at least where lifts are concerned. A party of fully-grown-men-scouts take us to just outside Caserta, but the place they drop us is small, out of the way and full of police and Carabinieri. Since hitching is supposed to be illegal in Italy we have to use even more stealth than usual, sidling up to people and muttering “mi scusi…dove e diretto…” under our breath. It’s another hour or more before a man takes pity on us and drives us completely out of his way to the train station in Caserta, where Valentina and her dreadlocked boyfriend Antonio are waiting patiently in their car.
I first met Valentina eight years ago while looking for a map in Alicante. The Tourist Office denied they had one, despite me asking nicely in my best Spanish. So when I saw a girl emerge from the same Tourist Office brandishing a map not ten minutes later, I marched over to her and demanded to know how she got it. Somehow this was the beginning of a friendship and Vale, an Italian Erasmus student who had just arrived in the city, spontaneously accompnied me to Valencia for three days a couple of days later. We lost touch over the last six years, but fortunately she kept the same email address and I remembered she had last said she was living in Naples. Well, it’s Caserta now actually, a smaller city very close by.
We’ve only just managed to squeeze in our visit as they’re flying out to Morrocco tomorrow, but we still have time to hang out and catch up. They take us to their small local social centre, Mille Piani. Antonio plays cards at the counter while the rest of us check emails and I ask a friend back home to cancel the cards that were stolen on our way out of Rome.
In the morning they drop us at the station on their way to the airport and for once we pay for a bus – only €1.30 all the way to Naples.
We’ve been hearing all about Naples’ rubbish problem from several of our lifts. They aren’t kidding – giant piles of trash have built up on every street corner. Apparently it’s the Mafia that are to blame – crazy to think there’s a lucrative underworld waste collection racket. I tat myself a really nice green woolly jumper, but it’s wet and adds extra weight to my load, which is heavy enough already being lugged all over Naples on foot the whole day in search of squats, couchsurfers or some other place to sleep. Our search continues up and down the smelly, chaotic streets until it’s dark and late and we’re completely exhausted. A friend of Vale’s texts me to say the Faculty of Arts was occupied by the students today and if we like, we can sleep there.
The students have occupied the University in preperation for a demonstration they’re having the following day. We spend the night in a lecture theatre, transformed into a cinema for the night. City of God plays loudly in Italian ’til the early hours. Not a lot of sleep, but at least we’re warm and dry.
We came to Naples primarily because David wanted to see Pompeii and Vesuvius, but after all the walking yesterday, the sleepless night, the improbablility of finding a new place to sleep and given it’s now torrentially raining, we decide to get the hell out of Napoli a.s.a.p.
For once Hitchwiki is no help at all, the only directions are for hitching North and we want to go South-East. We do our own research on the lecture theatre computers and find a petrol station on the peripheral road. It’s a hell of a job to get there, but we arrive tired and soggy after wading through undergrowth, climbing through a fence and crossing two lanes of a motorway.
It takes a long time to find a lift and when we do the guy turns out to be a nut job and drops us in the worst possible place imaginable – a Telepass office almost right on the motorway with hardly any cars outside. What we should do is shout and scream at him to take us somewhere better, but instead we thank him politely and get out of the car, stunned that anyone could possibly think of dropping us here. Nobody’s going our way, of course, but after some amount of waiting another man takes pity on us and drives us out of his way and through a toll to the next service station. This one’s also small, but we manage to get a lift all the way to Brindisi with the manager of Pfizer in his business hire car. He’s very nice, despite working for a really evil company. This has been something of a theme for us: generosity from nice men with evil jobs.
Brindisi was a popluar tourist resort some years back, but now this small harbour town is apparently much less visited, especially now in the off-season. Still, it’s not that cheap and again we can’t find a couchsurfer, despite Pete emailing twenty-seven of them for us from back home. We spend the night on a cafe patio by the harbour, lying behind a stack of chairs. Again we sleep little. Ships are very loud.
The boat to Greece isn’t ’til 6pm. A nice woman out walking her dog lets us store our bags at her grandmother’s place for a few hours so we can explore the city freely. It’s small and there’s not much to see, but it’s warm and nice enough with palm trees and cobbled streets.
The boat is fourteen hours from Brindisi to Patras, in Greece. We’re kicked out of the posh seats and directed to the “Pullman Seats” – the area for plebs like us. This room is uncarpeted, with chairs in rows that don’t lean all the way back and a 24 hour television, which at least is turned down during the night – a step up from the university cinema.
We paid for the boat in the end. After the night we had we were getting lazy and couldn’t find where the trucks parked up, to ask for this potentially mythical spare ticket the truck owners are given. My friend Sma has since hitched this boat from Bari and written it up on Hitchwiki, but she still had to pay €15. David managed to get a student discount on ours, making them €36 each including €10 for the dubious sounding “port tax”. Still, it’s not bad for a fourteen hour journey, warm place to sleep and a hot shower in the morning.
We wave goodbye to Italy from the deck with wine, beer and tapas under a fake rush umbrella. A bit cold for the pool unfortunately and it’s got no water in anyway. We lay our mats down the isle at the back of the Pullman Seats and it’s a good night’s sleep after all.
Crossing a border by sea always feels more significant, a bigger step. My first glimpse of Greece is islands floating past the boat in the morning: mountains emerge from silver-blue sea as rays of light slit through clouds and hit the water. We’re approaching Patras and there’s blue sky above it.